State Of Disunion

Unifor. Ever heard of it? If you have, you’re one step ahead of me. It happens to be the largest private sector union in the country. The “super union,” which was announced more than six months ago and officially came into being in August, represents the amalgamation of the Canadian Auto Workers and the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers unions. In total, Unifor has over 300,000 members – and, yet, like me, I bet many Canadians don’t have a clue it even exists.

The idea of joining the two unions was born back in May 2011 when CAW’s president Ken Lewenza and CEP’s boss Dave Coles were attending a Canadian Labour Congress executive meeting, listening to speech after speech about the declining state of Canadian unions. The two chiefs decided that something needed to be done to reverse the slide.

The story of Unifor’s formation is nicely told by author John Lorinc in the December 2013 edition of The Walrus magazine, along with a counterpoint story about a scrappy union called UNITE HERE!, itself an amalgamation of two U.S. unions (the Union of Needletrades, Industrial and Textile Employees and the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees union). UNITE HERE! Canada represents about 50,000 workers across the country in a wide variety of industries, mostly in lower paying occupations.

Despite being a fraction of Unifor’s size, the smaller union appears to be doing a better job of attracting new workers to its fold, mostly through a grassroots campaign that listens to workers’ concerns and tries to find solutions.

Reaching out to its workers was a key problem that already existed within CAW and CEP’s membership. In fact, one of the goals of Unifor is to provide “a new structure and identity that would better represent its members, organize and empower all workers (whether in the union or not) and build a more cohesive and strategic movement of working people.” Whether that’s happening or not remains to be seen, but it’s something that certainly needed to be addressed.

In my lifetime, I’ve been a part of numerous private sector unions, several of them associated with CEP. My first experience was in my early 20’s when I worked at a paper mill in Northwestern Ontario. Since the “P” in CEP stands for paperworkers, you’d think the union would have some understanding of the nature of the work its members did, but I often found that wasn’t the case.

As a new employee and first-time union member, I remember going to the bank when I was hired and seeing a fairly large sum of money had been taken out of my account. These were my union dues, which were being deducted regularly from my meagre savings, even though I had yet to work a day with the company, was on a “call crew” where I was only brought in when needed, and wouldn’t actually start getting a paycheque for several weeks.

I suppose I didn’t understand how unions worked at the time – and didn’t again when I was laid off for several stints but continued to have union dues deducted – but it seemed unfair to me to be paying a union when I wasn’t even being paid by the company.

You might think a union representing paperworkers would understand the sometimes-sporadic nature of the employees it represented, but you would be wrong. That was just the first in dozens of head-scratching moments over the years when I tried to rationalize what the union was ordering me to do – and what common sense seemed to be telling me I should be doing, instead.

Several years later I belonged to a union called NABET (National Association of Broadcast Employees and Technicians) while working at a television station. That seemed to be a good union that understood its employees and the nature of the work they did. But, as has happened with many smaller unions over the past 20 years, NABET was eventually swallowed up by a bigger union called – wait for it – CEP. It was at that point I wondered how one union could effectively represent me in such diverse occupations.

To me, that’s the crux of the whole problem, one that seems unlikely to improve under Unifor. The new union may talk about getting back to the grassroots and listening to its members’ concerns and all that positive-sounding stuff, but it seems a bit hard to believe. Bigger rarely seems to be better, as most companies have discovered when they’ve grown larger and larger.

Many people have asked, “What does the name ‘Unifor’ mean?” In fact, so many, it’s one of the five “Frequently Asked Questions” on the union’s website. Here’s part of the answer: “The name “Unifor” is intentionally ambiguous. It means different and personal things to a union membership that is increasingly diverse. The name doesn’t peg us to any one sector of the economy, or a particular workplace. Unifor is a union built for workers. But it’s also a union that reaches out to the unemployed and self-employed; to marginalized and racialized groups union (sic); to women and young workers. Simply put Unifor is a union for everyone.” Alrighty.

If I told you the new union’s name was the result of the efforts of a polling, communications and brand strategy firm, a design company, focus groups, member surveys and townhall meetings, would you be surprised? Between the generic sounding name and the non-descript “U” logo, the response from union leaders, members and the general public has been, at best, underwhelming.

But, branding aside, what really matters is whether anything will change at CAW/CEP/Unifor. Only time will tell if the mega-union will move in a new direction, attracting the same kind of grassroots dedication of UNITE HERE! and truly representing its members’ real needs and concerns – or if it will remain stagnant because it’s increasingly out of touch with the reality of a country where manufacturing jobs, Unifor’s bread and butter, continue to disappear.

In any case, the task ahead won’t be easy. Unions are being bashed everywhere you look, by political parties like Ontario’s Progressive Conservatives, by the media and by many Canadians who either don’t belong to one or feel neglected by their own current union. If Unifor hopes to regain its focus and reenergize the labour movement, it’s going to have to happen soon. Otherwise, it’s going to be too late.


Does Anyone Hate Winter More Than Me?

Okay, let’s get this out of the way right off the top: I hate winter. Honestly, I never used to have a problem with this season until my family moved up to Northwestern Ontario right before I started Grade 11. After that, it was straight downhill in the winter-loving department. For me, there are four defining moments in my life that made me realize how winter and I share totally different philosophies of life.

The first occurred in high school when I had to walk to a hockey game one evening. Here’s something you should probably not recommend to your children: trudging several miles at night carrying a duffel bag loaded with goalie equipment in -47 Celsius (-53 F) weather. Imagine adding cold on top of cold on top of cold. Got it? Good, because that’s still nothing close to what I felt like that night.

But, that’s just the tip of iceberg. And I’m not using that cliché figuratively. A few years later, a buddy of mine offered to take me out ice fishing. Well, gosh, that sounds like it might be a lot of fun, doesn’t it? If it’s anything like the grand old time those characters had ice fishing in the animated version of Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, I bet it will be a blast. But, only if you’re referring to a blast of Arctic air.

I must have missed the memo on why ice fishing is fun. Does it include spending two hours auguring a hole through ice that seems to be a metre thick? How about sitting on a metal stool on a windswept lake waiting for something interesting to happen while every other creature is hibernating? Or perhaps packing up to leave ten hours later after catching absolutely nothing – except the worst cold of my life? Somehow, they must have left those details off the sales brochure.

The last two instances happened when I worked on the ‘utility crew’ at the local paper mill after high school. Put ‘paper mill’ and ‘winter’ in the same sentence and you know you’ve got good material right there. Add in the words ‘utility crew’ and you have the bonus of not knowing exactly what job you’re going to be assigned when you show up for work each day.

In the first case, I was working in the area called the ‘wood room.’ This is where frozen logs come up from the frozen river along a frozen trough and into a wet, frozen building where frozen workers use frozen hooks to move those frozen logs into the next area of the mill. Part of the ‘fun’ of being on the utility crew was not being able to dress properly for the yet-to-be-assigned job you’re doing on a particular day. In this case, it would have been positively splendid if I’d known that wood room workers wear insulated rubber boots (not winter boots), wet suits (not winter parkas) and waterproof gloves (not winter gloves). Long story short, 18 seconds into my 12-hour shift every part of my body was soaked and, for the next half-day, was constantly re-soaked and re-frozen. You know the expression, “It sends shivers down my spine?” Yeah, that.

Finally, there was one other night that will live on forever in my winter memories. It involves the last evening before a Christmas holiday shutdown at the very same mill. Remember when I mentioned that I never knew what I was doing when I showed up for the start of a shift? How about not knowing what you’re doing for the first 11 hours of your 12 hour shift?

On the night in question, I reported for duty and was told to “sit in the lunchroom and wait.” So, wait I did. Several hours later, the supervisor I was working with showed up to make sure I was still there and assure me that he’d be coming to get me soon. Did I mention that he was already blind stinking drunk at this point? Or that I was starting to worry just a bit about what job I’d actually be doing?

Several more hours later, he showed up again to let me know we were almost ready to go. Did I mention that he was now about eight sheets to the wind and could barely stand up? At this point, I definitely started worrying a lot. Exactly what type of job would require almost no time to complete but would be worth bringing me in for a full 12 hour shift? I was about to find out.

About an hour before the shift was over, my fine inebriated friend stumbled in the door, bellowing, “It’s time.” Time for what? When I asked that question, he said, “You’ll find out.” And I did. Apparently, when they shut down the mill for the holiday break, one of the jobs that had to be done was to close off all the fan vents. On the roof. Of a several storey high tower. In the middle of winter. On one of the windiest, blizzardiest (it’s not a word, so don’t bother looking it up) nights I’ll ever remember in my life.

I’d always heard that alcohol tricks the body into ignoring the elements, but I’d never had any concrete proof until I saw my supervisor stumbling around blindly and obliviously that winter evening on the roof of some godforsaken paper mill in Northwestern Ontario. Somehow, all the vents managed to get closed that evening, but I’ll never know how. And, somehow, my drunken friend and I survived the night to tell the tale. Well, at least I did.

So, that’s my chilling story and I’m sticking to it. It’s also why I hate winter so much. Some memories can’t be unfrozen no matter how much time passes. And these are just a few of them. Therefore, I ask this question one more time: Does anyone hate winter more than me?